The Columbus Crew thrashed Atlanta United at home on Saturday night with an offensive explosion that resulted in a 6-1 win. It was one of the most dominant wins in Black & Gold history with four players scoring their first goals for the club.
This was a game that many Columbus fans did not look on with optimism, as the home side playing without the likes of goalkeeper Eloy Room, midfielder Lucas Zelarayan, forward Cucho Hernandez and center back Milos Degenek due to international duty or injury. Atlanta came in atop the Eastern Conference but was missing a few players as well such as World Cup champion Thiago Almada and U.S. center back Miles Robinson.
In a battle of undermanned teams, the question was who would rise to the occasion. The answer was convincingly the Crew.
The Black & Gold employed a similar game plan to recent weeks but played in a different formation, which rendered a positive result. Let’s dive into what worked so well in this match.
Playing a 5-2-1-2/3-5-2
The biggest change head coach Wilfried Nancy made to his squad was opting to go with two strikers up top instead of just one. In recent weeks, the Crew lined up in a variation of the 5-2-2-1 formation, but that changed on Saturday night.
Despite being low on center backs, Nancy stuck with his preferred back five/three defensive look. Philip Quinton moved to the center of the three center backs and Gustavo Vallecilla made his debut, giving the Black & Gold a left-footed left center back.
The Crew controlled the game from the start due largely to how this different set up moving forward. Taking a player out of midfield and using two strikers gave playmaker Alexandru Matan more room to create and roam. While any Columbus team will be better with Zelarayan in the lineup, vacating that space by taking out the second attacking midfielder gave Matan more room to operate.
Not only did Matan have more space, but so did central midfielders Aidan Morris and Darlington Nagbe. Often, Morris recognized the space in front of him and charged forward, gaining ground for the Crew. This was one of the advantages of playing a two-striker formation.
The downside was that the Black & Gold did not have as many players in the middle of the pitch to combine in the build-up. But this wasn’t a factor because both strikers accommodated for that. Occasionally, Christian Ramirez or Jacen Russel-Rowe would drop into the midfield area to play a quick one-two to help advance the ball up the pitch.
The beauty of this formation is the ability to shift into other structures when needed. For example, Columbus attacked in a 5-2-1-2/3-5-2 but defended in a 5-2-3 because it better suited the team’s pressing style and defensive setup. This is a very fluid formation that can do a lot of different things if Nancy wanted it to.
Overall, the Crew’s flow offensively looked better, but now the question is where does Nancy go when he has everyone available? Only time will tell, but having too many players now playing well is a good problem for the Black & Gold to have.
The positioning of Matan
Watching Matan on Saturday night was a thing of beauty for those who tracked his movements and paid attention to what he was doing. He played a vital role in the Crew’s victory, but it wasn’t for playing a set position.
Matan was all over the attacking third, which simply means that he was playing as a position-less player. We’ve seen the Black & Gold do this previously on occasion, most recently with Hernandez given free rein to roam up top.
Noticable was Matan’s reading of the game and how he was able to find pockets of space for himself in promising attacking areas. Sometimes it was in the middle in the space of a traditional attacking midfielder, but other times he drifted out wide almost as a winger and attack from an angle.
Matan drifting wide created space for the two strikers by drawing a defender with him. From there, the forwards can go 1 v. 1 against the center backs and a well-timed ball could put them in behind the defense.
This also kept the defenders on their toes. It’s hard work marking a front two and also having to worry about where Matan is because he is so hard to get off of the ball once he has it. He enjoys tight spaces and even in this early seaso has shown the willingness to dribble at defenses.
It will be interesting to see how Zelarayan fits into this role, because he has done this in the past as well but is considered more of a traditional central attacking midfielder, whereas Matan has more pace and ability to shift. Just another thing to look out for in the coming weeks.
Columbus’ press vs. Atlanta’s press
Both teams would have liked to press high, but the Black & Gold were the team that was sharper in that area of the game on Saturday. While both squads had the intention to press, they went about it in different ways.
United wanted to press hard to the ball, meaning almost all the time that Columbus was in possession in its own half Atlanta, sent a man to press the player on the ball. This was typically their striker Miguel Berry.
The problem with that approach from the Five Stripes was that an aggressive, on-ball press can leave teams vulnerable behind. With the Crew wanting the play out of the back, this played straight into the home side’s hands.
While the Black & Gold struggle with the New York Red Bulls’ press, they looked better on Saturday. Columbus played the ball quicker with one-touch passing and was calm and composed.
The Crew’s press on the other hand was a tad delayed. If the Blcak & Gold lost the ball, they pressed with numbers right away if they thought they could win it back. If not, Columbus called off the press and drop back into a 5-2-3 and man-marking system. The front three of Russel-Rowe, Ramirez and Matan slowly move forward to put more urgency on the backline in possession, while the wing backs and midfielders man-marked to take away options to play through the center of the field.
This is why United sent up so many long balls with no options and the Crew was patient in the delayed press. Quinton and Vallecilla were able to eat up those long passes and gift Columbus with possession again and again.
It was yet another bright spot of what Nancy is building with the Black & Gold and an example of how good the Crew can be with more time and practice.